South Carolina basketball coach Lamont Paris and his team have one of the hardest opening stretches to SEC play of any team in the conference. They've already passed the first test with a home win over Mississippi State, but the gauntlet continued on Tuesday night on the road at Alabama.
The game was a matchup between two contrasting styles (Alabama is 2nd in the country in scoring offense, and South Carolina basketball is 18th in the nation in scoring defense) and two of the conference's best guards as Meechie Johnson and Mark Sears (two of the SEC's top-3 scorers) squared off.
The contest began with the Gamecocks winning the tip, but it was Alabama's Aaron Estrada who opened the scoring with a wing 3-pointer. Back-to-back makes from Ta'Lon Cooper and BJ Mack earned the lead for USC. A few possessions later, Cooper hit a 3-pointer, and Meechie Johnson had a steal and coast-to-coast layup. In the blink of an eye, Carolina was up 10-3.
Sears and Cooper traded 3-point shots (Cooper was up to 8 points already), and heading into the first media timeout, South Carolina led 13-6. 2 free throws for Sears followed the break before the game devolved into three straight turnovers (two for the 'Cocks, one for the 'Tide).
After missing the last game with a hip pointer, Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk checked in early against Nate Oats' team and quickly grabbed 3 rebounds. After Alabama's 6th turnover, freshman Collin Murray-Boyles got on the board with a strong post take. With just over 12 minutes left in the half, Carolina led 15-8.
BJ Mack got caught behind a screen giving Mark Sears a wide open 3-pointer, and then after a scoreless couple of minutes, Nick Pringle and Rylan Griffen scored back-to-back bucket to bring Alabama's run to 8-0, lighting Coleman Coliseum on fire and giving 'Bama the lead 16-15.
Meechie Johnson ended the run with a tough runner in the lane, and then two teams traded buckets before another timeout. 19-19 was the score with 6:51 left in the 1st half.
The Gamecock defense earned a few more stops, and then a ridiculous end-of-clock fallaway from Sears riled up the crowd before Johnson quieted them with an aggressive take to the rim.
A few possessions later, a Latrell Wrightsell 3-pointer gave 'Bama a 28-27 lead, and the two teams traded buckets before a deep Meechie Johnson 3-ball didn't fall at the final horn of the half. For the first time all season, the Gamecocks were trailing at halftime, 30-29.
After halftime, Sears picked up where he left off with a deep 3-pointer to push his team's lead to 4 points. The Gamecocks, though, missed their first 10 shots (meaning they were 1 for their last 17), and the Crimson Tide made more than their fair share of shots to make the score 43-29 with 13:30 left in the half. It was the first time all season that the Gamecocks trailed by double-digits.
Meechie Johnson stopped the bleeding with a 3-pointer, but Alabama stayed hot. Making 6 of 7 shots, compared to just 2 makes from the Gamecocks, gave Lamont Paris' squad a seemingly out-of-reach 13-point deficit.
The lead grew to 20 points before the Gamecocks scored again. Horrendous offensive play and slow-rotating defense are a bad combination, especially against a team like Alabama. The run got up to 24-5 with 8:56 left in the game.
A really deep 3-pointer from Meechie Johnson helped a little, but then neither team scored for a while as they combined for 8 turnovers in just over five minutes of gameplay. Playing with a big lead, that played to the advantage of Alabama. By the time Alabama scored with 6:00 left in the game, the score stood 57-37.
The rest of the game was an uncomfortable watch as the Gamecocks were somehow even worse than they were during their horrible start to the half. Had Alabama not been coasting to the finish line, the final score would have been outright embarrassing. Even as it was, the Crimson Tide won handily as the Gamecocks scored just 18 points in the 2nd half.